Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
Is it possible to create a performance non-hierarchically? What does that mean?
Here, collaborators Emily Mast (a visual artist) and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff (a playwright and artist) discuss the making of The Seed Eaters, Emily's new work commissioned by the Grazer Kunstverein as part of Steirischer Herbst festival. The Seed Eaters is a constantly shifting cosmos of sculptural installation and performance, featuring residents from Graz. Below, Emily and Rachel wonder about the experimentation that's at the heart of collaborative performance making - what it means to give up control, how much control you can actually give up and whether that's a good idea, and how that act connects to political activism.
Rachel: Something that I just learned is that handwriting is genetic.
Emily: In what way?
Rachel: I started looking at my handwriting and seeing my mom’s handwriting and I was like, how is this possible? It didn’t used to look like this. It’s turning into my mom’s even though we hold our pens a different way.
Emily: Is she left-handed?
Rachel: She’s not. It’s like a trait. You think you’re so original … but it turns out …
Emily: I actually recognised that my handwriting looked like my mom’s handwriting when I was very young. Like first grade, maybe even younger, and I made a conscious change to shift it right away. And then I kept shifting it and I would constantly revise my handwriting and I kept revising all through college.
Rachel: Yeah. But hold this thought because we’re gonna come back to this question of…
[They clink their glasses]
Rachel: Yeah, so this is a really interesting time to be talking to you about your work, because I feel so deep in it and I also feel so influenced by you…
Emily: And so influential!
Rachel: Ah ha! [laughing]
Rachel: Non-hierarchical Emily Mast reveals herself right here! So I think it’s going to take some work on both of our parts to zoom out, because we’re both in the work.
Rachel: Because this is our fifth day working on the ground on the The Seed Eaters. I thought we could start by just reflecting on a moment in the process. Has there been a moment for you that has really landed, where things have come together? What’s excited you most so far in these rehearsals?
Emily: The first thing that comes to mind is the slow dance moment. The moment when we practiced what was in our minds a slow dance that was going to definitely unfurl in this really specific way, which was the awkward arms-length-I-can’t-really-look-you-in-the-eyes-I’m-closing-my-eyes-more-because-I’m-self-conscious-than-anything and then asking people just to find a song that they had in common, and that taking much longer than I thought it would, and then being really surprised by the song they started to sing.
Rachel: In total harmony!
Emily: Yeah! And I don’t know what it was. It was an Austrian…
Rachel: I think it was an Austrian Christmas song.
Emily: It was an Austrian Christmas song. And just the sort of … profound joy of all these strangers singing this song together. And then all these strangers dancing together in a way that was so unlike anything we had planned for. It was so joyful. It was so romantic. It was more energetic than expected. It was stranger. It was more vulnerable.
Rachel: Yeah because it caught everyone off guard I think. And it was nothing we ever could have orchestrated. The idea of joining spontaneously in song.
Emily: And I think maybe that moment really sticks with me because I know it can never really be recreated in performance. It was so singular. You can’t rehearse that. And I’m not sure you can recreate that. Because what was magical was that nobody really knew each other yet.
Rachel: Right. I mean I think something that is really interesting about your work is that you don’t privilege one sense over the other, and you don’t privilege one element of the performance over another, including the rehearsal process. And that’s something that the audience never sees, but if moments of real connection happen behind the scenes, that’s just as important. You don’t try to recreate those. Which I love. But you wonder, well, can that happen in the performance?
Emily: I think, in the past I have tried. And I’m becoming a bit more realistic and strategic … not strategic, but I understand now there is something you get in the earliest moments of a process that’s the only time it can happen, because there’s something about people trying to navigate a strange situation with strangers that’s really fascinating.
Rachel: Yeah, can you say more about that because that to me seems like a through-line in all of your work - you think about that with audiences. I’m curious about how your work has evolved over the years and how your thinking has evolved, because I’ve traced it for two years now over the course of multiple projects. But if you could talk about the last few turning points for you, what do you see those as?
Emily: I think for me a big one in the last two years, since we started working together, was working on a project called The Cage is a Stage, a project in which we were looking at what dismantling hierarchies might look like, coming from more of an intellectual foundational place, doing tonnes of research, understanding it with our minds and translating that into gesture in the rehearsal process. I feel like with that project I had some sort of vision I was trying to realise in an extended rehearsal process. And there’s been a number of projects in the last six months that have taught me how to ease up the reins on making sure that vision looks like what I want it to look like and maybe concentrating a bit more on honing my frame, sculpting or perfecting or sanding my frame, and then letting whatever happens within that framework really be its own thing. And I don’t think I’m succeeding yet, but I think this project is a little bit closer to that.
Rachel: What makes you say you’re succeeding?
Emily: Because if I was to play by my own rules, the rules we’ve set up, it would be like ‘ok, you have a couple of minutes to put on this costume in the way you want to’. But then I go in and I have to make adjustments, because for me the aesthetics is a really important part of the framework.
Rachel: The other day Emily you said something I thought was so profound and really distinguishes you from other artists – you said: ‘I realised, working on these projects over the last couple of years, I don’t care about the Whitney Biennial – I care about Vera [one of the performers in The Seed Eaters]’. People are the medium in some way, and so…
Maybe it’s all just about not being alone.
Emily: Can I just say, I would like to be in the Whitney … [laughter]
Rachel: Not to say you don’t want to, but what’s driving you is how to frame real people and those connections between people. So with The Seed Eaters, we're specifically exploring how to make performance in this non-hierarchical way, but do you think that will be ongoing for you, and, do you really believe that you will increasingly let go?
Emily: That’s a great question and I actually don’t know…
Rachel: But you still feel too controlling right now?
Emily: Yes and no, because I feel like you have to be if you want to feel some sense of satisfaction because the reality is obviously that you can’t let go completely or nothing will get done. What I’m learning from getting involved with some local political activism right now is that somebody has to step in at some point and get people organised. Actually, the two are not unrelated, political activism and the work we're doing right now. When you're finally executing the thing you've organised, then it’s very much about content and framing your beliefs and then approaching the situation with a completely open mind where you say to yourself, whoever answers the door when I knock is equally valid, because there’s no other way to make a difference.
Rachel: Will you talk about that in terms of The Seed Eaters, a moment when you felt that openness to what a performance brought?
Emily: I try to tune into the moments when I feel the most resistance. And the moments when I feel open and can listen to people’s ideas, it's finally starting to feel more natural. It was actually more with you, where I felt I was disagreeing with everything you were suggesting and maybe that’s okay because we’re already in an equal place, whereas I can’t really disagree with one of the players because that hierarchy is the one we’re examining and trying to take down. I think I won’t necessarily continue to work in a non-hierarchical way, but I think everything I do will be affected by this pretty deep investigation of what it looks like to dismantle a hierarchy and I don’t think I can ever be as blissfully naieve as I was before we started really digging and looking at some really hard stuff, like looking at my own privilege and the way I instigate instances of hierarchy without even knowing it.
Rachel: It’s so telling to me that the thing that has most satisfied you so far has been process and something that nobody will ever see.
Emily: Can we backtrack… Because I thought you were going to ask a different question before – which is, why wouldn’t you continue to work in this non-hierarchical way? I’ve been thinking about that because it is so satisfying and I feel like a better artist and a better person for it, but there is an immense amount of … consciousness is so sharpened ... for example, when we were laying out pillows for our group discussion during our workshop, I had to stop and say ‘actually, no, the players need to lay out these pillows themselves, I do not need to direct or oversee this particular situation’. And to constantly think in those terms can get to be a little overwhelming. Or I could see how it would be at some point. You do end up opening your heart and accepting all of these people into your life and you kind of hold them there. That sounds really cheesy but there’s a place now in me for all of these collaborators, and I wonder if at some point I will reach saturation.
Rachel: I don’t want to believe we’re limited but I also feel so saturated right now, that I understand where that question is coming from… do you really believe that though? I don’t know if I do… How would you describe your vision, if in politics it’s organising the meeting, for your artistic work what would you say the equivalent is, the scaffolding, the frame that does have your stamp, that’s different from some other artists like John Cage or Yvonne Rainer or other people that think in terms of scores or frames?
Emily: I think it comes back to a non-hierarchy in the different media. There’s as much attention paid to costumes as there is to lighting as there is to the writing, to the casting, the personalities of the performers, the colour choices. Dance is as important as theatre, is as important as text, is as important as aesthetics…
Rachel: This is so interesting because it connects to the way you were reflecting on people you were working with – how do you have this limitless capacity to hold everything in at once? The more I get to know your work, this keeps coming up – in the rehearsal process, what is going through your brain? I’m watching the human beings and trying to track clarity for performance, and you’re doing that but also thinking of the shadow from the light that’s not even installed.
Emily: Yeah, that is precisely what I’m thinking about. I’m looking at and feeling out six things at at once, pretty much all the time. When we’re in rehearsal I’m projecting the correct costuming, the correct lighting, the sound when there’s 30 people in the room and how much will be absorbed, all of it … The time of day, how that will affect the lighting. How does that work? I don’t know.
Rachel: Today, I finally understood why we’re using gold foil – it’s because for you this moment of almost synaesthetic pleasure where someone is crinkling a piece of gold foil, there doesn’t need to be a dramatic justification because it’s about sense and image... Changing direction a bit, how has Hazel [Emily’s daughter], being a parent, influenced you?
Emily: I think it’s grounding. It’s an anchor. We convince ourselves as artists that what we’re doing is so incredibly important that it trumps everything else, politics, family... For me, having a child is about being present and not succeeding, and trying, and not succeeding. I actually feel like it’s sharpened my brain because now I have to think about all the layers I was talking about, as well as somebody’s wellbeing. Maybe that is hierarchical, because that person is always going to be the most important. When you’re with your child, she’s always the most important and it’s hard to concentrate because you want to give her everything but you can’t.
Rachel: Maybe non-hierarchical is too open a term … we project too much onto this word. I’ve thought a lot about utopias and I feel like they’re useful only in terms of it being a process and not ever thinking of it as a place you arrive. I think a non-hierarchical framework, working with that is useful as a way to check yourself, but I have still no idea if it’s possible or useful to shed hierarchy totally, because at the same time someone does need to take care of a child. In a certain moment, you do need to love your child more than anyone.
Emily: I would be curious to ask you what is it that you want ultimately, if it’s not the Whitney Biennial or the equivalent in playwriting. What is it that you aspire to?
Rachel: I’ve studied theatre and playwriting because it’s the form that has fit what I’m interested in the closest but I think learning about your work was freeing for me because theatre has never felt like enough or like the right combination of things, and then spending time with you I realise these mediums were just arbitrarily constructed by people, as much as your work was constructed by you, and your work brings attention to the constructions of all of these forms and then allows me to think more freely about what I want my work to be.
Emily: So you want to be free.
Rachel: I want to be freee … [laughs] But I now have no illusions working with you because I think your work is the vision of what success means as a practicing artist and it's not what I used to imagine. I used to be really driven by a sense of, I know this word is a little bit loaded, a populist sense of wanting my work to reach many people, but now I think I want it to reach all kinds of people. It doesn’t have to be thousands, it can be ten, but I would love for my work to somehow be received by people, that are both in and out of the arts, in a meaningful way that surprises them and to find a way of working that really blurs the distinction between art and life … Oh we should have them take our picture – will you come back later and take our picture? [indistinct mumbling from waiter] Yeah, thank you. Um. What were we saying? Oh, to different kinds of people, all while having a certain level of artistry. I think for me my goal… is …
Emily: [to waiter] Oh, we’re going to act natural, we’re not going to pose.
Rachel: Yeah, we’ll just keep talking … is to find a way…
Emily: [to waiter] Oh, no, we’re talking – there has to be a picture …
Rachel: Emily’s directing right now… thank you! Danke!
Emily: Yes, thank you.
Rachel: … yeah, I mean now I think I would be satisfied if I could afford to continually work with real people as a way of investigating the questions of life that arise and to share it with people in a way that’s meaningful to those outside of the arts. Does that sound kind of boring? I mean, it sounds kind of dry, but I think it’s really more about art as philosophy and why I work is not to share my own stamp but more… I want things to be beautiful and I also want things to be meaningful and process-based and never about suggesting an answer but being a way to figure out questions that are too complicated to figure out outside of performance. That require people coming together in a way.
Emily: Yeah! I mean I would say that my answer is so close to that because I often start a piece by thinking about the audience. Success, for e, is when a piece is meaningful for the museum guard as well as the visiting curator. To be able to speak to all different kinds of people, those who really have no prior knowledge of art and those who are deeply schooled or versed.
Rachel: So we share this, totally. And where for you does that come from, do you think? Or where did it start, or how did you know that was something you cared about? Because I don’t think the art world really cares about that.
Emily: Oh, it definitely does not. At least in my experience. The art world is much more interested in appealing to the curator. And the art world is not interested at all in the museum guard. Unless they’re putting the museum guard in a piece.
Rachel: Was there a project where you first realised that was what you cared about? Did you ever feel like you had to defend that in your work?
Emily: I do feel like I have to defend it frequently. I’m making assumptions, it’s not like I get specific feedback from curators and museum guards, but it seems that certain art world people get what I do, really take it seriously, embrace it fully and are willing to go to great lengths to support it, and others write it off completely because it’s not maybe ‘intellectual’ enough, it's too emotional or it just doesn’t fit the mould that we’re used to seeing, and it’s certainly not commercial enough at all. It’s so much easier to be validated in the art world if you have commercial success.
[Waiter comes over - conversation in bad German/broken English with waiter about when the show is on]
Rachel: I wish we had invitations to give out… what’s your name?
Rachel: Achilles... oh, like with the heel?
Waiter: [indistinct mumbling]
Rachel: I’ve never met someone with that name before. Nice to meet you, I’m Rachel.
Emily: I’m Emily... let me see if I can find… here!
Rachel: [addresses recorder] Emily is ripping up our rehearsal schedule that includes the address of the Kunstverein and giving it to our waiter.
Emily: … That’s the address of the venue.
Waiter: What’s your name?
Emily: Emily… and Rachel.
Rachel: I hope you come.
Waiter: [something indistinct] … later?
Emily: I’m going home because I have a child.
Rachel: And I have to … [something indistinct from waiter] no, Los Angeles.
Waiter: Nice to meet you. [waiter leaves]
Emily: The waiter lost interest the second I said the word 'child'. Works every time.
Rachel: He wanted the address of the museum but that wasn’t what he was really looking for… Where were we?
Emily: I think we were just talking about success. Okay, okay, the other thing that’s really missing from what I want of all of this is, I think, respect. So the next question might be, from who? I’d love to be respected by other artists, the museum guard, the people I’m working with… I actually want to be respected by all people, including the curator. It sounds kind of obvious maybe…
Rachel: Right… well I don’t think it’s obvious… what does respect mean to you? It means someone having seen the work and then respecting you?
Emily: You know what, for me I think it’s more like I worked with this human being and she really gave me the time of day and listened to what I had to say and I feel seen and respected, and there has been some warmth.
Rachel: So it comes back to actually … you care about what an audience member sees with respect to the project, but the human interactions behind the scenes really, really matter to you.
Emily: Yes. I think they really do, more and more.
Rachel: And as a working artist, ultimately what matters to you is how your treat your collaborators and that your collaborators are the museum guards as much as the curators. Maybe collaborators is the wrong word, but that every person you interact with in the process and that imprint, that is really the huge legacy for you.
Emily: I think so. Because, as I told you before, I really believe that I have something to learn from everyone even our waiter.
Rachel: Ar-chilles … which is not Achilles. [laughter]
Emily: Not that I’m going to take the time to find out tonight but… [laughter] it seems to me there’s room for every perspective no matter how wacky or intelligent or rote or totally out there it is… and I might be wrong about that, but I'm still willing to test this hypothesis.
Rachel: That’s so beautiful
Emily: I think what makes me really upset is a lack of care. And more than anything, and teaching really taught me this, the thing that makes me the most livid is a lack of generosity, really, I have no patience for that.
Rachel: So on the flip side, do you get equal satisfaction when someone at a restaurant or on the street or on the bus is generous and swipes you into the metro or whatever it is? Does that for you have an equal meaning to art? Do you react that way in your daily life to generosity?
Emily: I think when I’m thinking about generosity I’m purely thinking about it in terms of performance, when you’re putting a work out there and you’re asking someone to come and spend their time with you, I would like to give them something more than just solipsism and my own, narrow obsessions. I think it really matters to think of their experience as well. I keep coming back to this. If you’re going to write language, how can you be generous with the audience so they can hear what you’ve written? So you’re not just speaking a wall of words.
Rachel: I think working with you validates my feeling as a viewer of most work, which is that 99% of the time I’m not actually taking it in, I’m thinking about my homework and am I running out of sardines and did I leave a pile of dirty laundry in the washing machine and it’s so hard to just be cared for enough or to care for people enough that they are present, which is true at a dinner table and true in anything that’s a live medium… it’s this odd combination of ego and egolessness.
Rachel: Ok, so maybe we can end on this question. Here we are, almost eleven o’clock at night, I think you’ve been going since what time today…
Emily: I woke up at 8.30.
Rachel: So you’ve had a full day of 100% attention to every single detail, more than most human beings, every single sense. And you’ve been doing this now for four projects straight, with no breaks in between… Where do you get the energy? It’s clearly not about any financial reward… why the fuck do you do this? I’m asking this with real urgency because I’m also compelled to live this way and I feel at a loss most of the time, but being here I feel so completely fulfilled that it’s really surprising, I feel fully used… but in a satisfying way. Being used to my full capacity which is such a beautiful thing because I feel seen, like using muscles I didn’t know I had and I can appreciate them. It’s like a satisfaction you get from hiking up a mountain. What is it for? And is that even possible to answer?
Emily: I feel like I’ve only really just learned how to answer that question this year. I’ve been making work for easily 20 years, more than that… and there have probably been more moments in my life where it was more painful than it was satisfying or pleasurable. Well, maybe it's been half and half. I think I am living the dream right now! The Seed Eaters is such a weird project when you describe it on paper.
Rachel: But now I can’t imagine working in any other way … can you?
Emily: No! I love working this way because for me this is what makes the most sense! You ask how I can do it over and over and over - it’s because it’s exciting every time. There’s something about getting into the problems … you were talking about working things out with people, there’s something super satisfying about that. Maybe it’s all just about not being alone. For me it feels decadent … to be able to fly to Dublin and gather a bunch of strangers together and to clothe them all in varying shades of gold and yellow and to choreograph an odd dance in a field under a rainbow … Up until I was about 30 years old I felt like life was about constructing an interesting narrative about your life. Like living life wasn’t so much about living it, but about constructing an interesting narrative. Whereas now it’s not so much about the interesting narrative but the content and what you’re actually doing and all the rest doesn’t really matter …
Rachel: Tonight I was reading this book recommended by Kate [Strain, the curator of Grazer Kunstverein], The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fischer, and he talks about how reality has become unreal and is just a series of clichés and I think as someone who grew up in an American culture without too much religion in a city that was very divided by race and class, just growing up basically in the golden age of capitalism in America, that it’s really isolating. So for me this kind of work feels so indulgent but in the best way because the indulgence is people.
Rachel: What happens if you sing a lullaby at the same time as someone and it doesn’t feel corny because it’s been constructed in a way that you can actually take it in – that’s what happens with The Seed Eaters, it’s a surprise every time in a way that’s carefully constructed. You never see this moment of connection coming, so you can actually feel it with other people. It’s been rare in my 27 years of existence, that I’ve had that. I want to keep working this way to continually create the structure for that in my life. It feels more real to me than religion because it's the way that I actually think.